Vol. 4 Num 205 Tue. December 23, 2003  

Valuable minerals lying in the beach sand

A population of 140 million is struggling to come out of the grip of poverty in this tiny little land of just 144,000 square kilometres. The per capita land of this country is one of the lowest in the world. If one correlates the per capita land to the probability of finding mineral recourses at/below the surface, then this country also has one of the lowest per capita probability of finding mineral resources. In this context, the discovery of any mineral resource in the country must be taken seriously and its commercial exploitation pursued vigorously in order to create the much needed wealth and job to repeal poverty.

Heavy minerals were discovered in the beach sand in the coastal region in 1961. But these minerals are yet to be commercially extracted. Over the years there have been newspaper reports/editorials, seminars etc. on the topic from time to time. These evoked cycles of optimism followed by inaction and pessimism. Reports published abroad also mention about the potential of these resources. The 1994 US Geological Survey Report on Bangladesh says: ".... There are abundant resources of beach sands along the country's coastline, and some 17 separate areas have been identified to contain ilmenite, zircon, rutile, and magnetite...." Recently, an Australian company termed some of the minerals, particularly zircon and rutile, occurring in the coastal region of Bangladesh as "world class." Despite all these, the plain fact remains: the beach sand minerals are still unutilised after all these years.

Beach sand minerals are valuable industrial raw materials which have stable demand in the international market. Analysts predict that the demand of these minerals will rise steadily at the rate of 3-4 per cent per annum. These minerals are not recyclable after their use and hence each year higher production/new production facility is required to meet the increasing demand. Bangladesh therefore can earn large amount of foreign currency by exporting the minerals and also save foreign currency by utilising the minerals locally as far as possible. It may be mentioned that at present Bangladesh is importing these minerals and products based on these minerals for various industries including paint, paper, ceramic, welding electrode, steel etc.

After their discovery in 1961 by the then Geological Survey of Pakistan, the beach sand minerals were taken over by the erstwhile Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission. The reason for Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission to take the responsibility of the beach sand minerals was possibly linked to the fact that one of the minerals discovered, monazite, was radioactive. It turned out, however, that the amount of monazite in the deposit was quite small. On the other hand, besides monazite, a number of other minerals were discovered; the most economically important minerals found being ilmenite (a mineral of titanium metal, it also contains some iron), zircon (a mineral of zirconium metal), rutile (a mineral of titanium metal) etc. Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC) surveyed the coastal region mostly between 1968 and 1986 and discovered 17 deposits: 15 deposits along Chittagong coastal belt, one deposit in Nijhum Dwip and one deposit in Kuakata. The Commission came up with an estimate of 17,62,116 tons of economic heavy minerals in the Bangladesh coast. BAEC estimates that the reserve of ilmenite, garnet, zircon and rutile in the coastal belt of Bangladesh are 10,25,558, 2,22,761, 1,58,117 and 70,274 tons respectively. Between 1975 and 1987, BAEC ran a pilot plant set up with Australian technical assistance and separated a few hundred tons of heavy minerals, notably ilmenite, zircon, rutile etc.

BAEC tried to commercialise the minerals in the country but without much success. BAEC however developed one application of ilmenite: it used several tons of this mineral in concrete walls for radiation protection purposes in its reactor at Saver. In 1987, the government decided to discontinue and sell out the pilot plant at Cox's Bazar. But the decision was reversed in 1991 and BAEC later submitted a project proposal to upgrade the pilot plant facilities. A project worth 5.3 crore taka was granted by the government and BAEC implemented the project during 1994 to 1998. In 2001, the Bureau of Mineral Development (BMD), Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources issued an exploration licence to an Australian company, International Titanium Resources Pty. Ltd (ITR) to make exploratory survey of beach sand minerals for commercial exploitation at two locations at Cox's Bazar. Thus two ministries of the government, the Ministry of Science and ICT (through BAEC) and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (through BMD) have now been involved with the beach sand minerals.

In the mean time, a number of individual researchers at different Universities including the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), the Rajshahi University, the Dhaka University took interest in the minerals and started doing research. Although isolated and not at all coordinated, these research efforts brought to light some valuable information on the characteristics of the minerals of Bangladesh beach, and the feasibility of their upgradation and application in local industries. These efforts revealed that ilmenite grains, the most abundant among the valuable minerals in the beach sand, contain excess iron oxide at the microscopic scale as intergrowth. That is why Bangladesh ilmenite contains only about 40 per cent titanium dioxide, while the minimum titanium dioxide content of commercially marketable ilmenite is more than 55 per cent. Research work directed towards the upgradation of Bangladesh ilmenite at BUET successfully increased the titanium dioxide content to more that 92 per cent which yields a high value added product known as "synthetic rutile". Research at BUET also revealed that zircon found in Bangladesh coast containing 65.23 per cent zirconium oxide (commercial grades contain a minimum of 65 per cent zirconium oxide) is of good quality. It has been demonstrated through trial tests that Bangladesh zircon can be used in ceramic glaze, refractory and steel casting.

BAEC has done a good job in exploring and adhering to the beach mineral reserves for so many years and not giving up in spite of policy makers' neglect over the years. It has come up with an estimate of the reserve. But the calculated reserve by BAEC may be an underestimation in the present day context. BAEC seems to have made reserve calculation by including sand deposit having mineral content greater than 5 per cent (known as cut off value). This cut off value appears to be rather high in the context of availability of improved separation technology nowadays and the exhaustion of good quality deposit with time. In some deposits of the world e.g., Murray Basin deposits in Australia, the cut off value is taken as low as 1 per cent. Therefore, re-estimation of the reserve and more detailed commercial exploration survey are likely to give a higher value of reserve.

The first step in the extraction of beach sand minerals is to separate them from ordinary sand with which they remain mixed in the beach (known as physical separation). This is what the pilot plant of BAEC at Cox's Bazar has been doing. If the minerals are of good inherent quality and the separation process is efficient, then the minerals obtained after physical separation can be sold directly. It appears that the pilot plant has been having trouble in performing the physical separation all right. That is why BAEC had to take the pilot plant upgradation project during 1994-1998 to improve the physical separation processes. But only physical separation may not make certain minerals suitable for immediate use. This has been the case for ilmenite of Bangladesh beach. As has been mentioned already, this mineral is microscopically mixed with iron oxide, and therefore its valuable mineral, titanium dioxide content is only about 40 per cent as against the commercial requirement of 55 per cent minimum. In order to make this mineral commercially valuable, it has to be upgraded through metallurgical processing.

It appears that BAEC recognised, quite early on, the need for research on metallurgical processing. But no research work seems to have been done by BAEC along this direction. Even in the 1994-98 pilot plant upgradation project, BAEC remains completely silent about this and concentrated on physical separation only. It is to be noted that ilmenite is the most important economic mineral on tonnage basis: its amount identified by BAEC is 10,25,558 ton, while all other economic minerals altogether total 7,36,559 tons.

Regarding the involvement of Bureau of Mineral Development (BMD), nothing much is available on the exact details of the agreement between BMD and the Australian company International Titanium Resources Pty. Ltd. (ITR). Some sources say that ITR finds the mining project viable just on the basis of exploration of zircon and rutile. It will stockpile ilmenite for upgradation at a later period. Sources say that according to the agreement with ITR, GOB will get royalty at the rate of 12 per cent of the value of minerals at the pit mouth. This royalty rate is not the best, as higher percentage of royalty exists for beach sand minerals in different parts of the world. Moreover, Bangladesh ilmenite having a lower percentage of titanium dioxide will have a lower price at the pit mouth. Its real value will be realised only after its upgradation to synthetic rutile. If the agreement fixes the price of ilmenite just at the pit mouth, then Bangladesh will loose a lot of revenue. Although ITR appears to propose that the mining of beach sand mineral from Bangladesh beach is economically feasible just on the basis of two minerals, zircon and rutile, any mining attempt that leave out ilmenite is unlikely to realise the full potential of heavy mineral resources of Bangladesh.

In fact by proper metallurgical processing, Bangladesh ilmenite can be converted into synthetic rutile as has been demonstrated in laboratory research at BUET. This processing will bring in huge value addition as the current market price of ilmenite is US$ 75 per ton while that of synthetic rutile is US$ 550 per ton. Such upgradation process is being used for ilmenite in other countries including Australia and India. As for the other two minerals, rutile and zircon, research results suggest that proper physical separation should be good enough to yield commercially acceptable mineral grade. The state of activities of ITR at present is not clear. It has been learned that ITR stopped its activities and is now asking the government to extend the licence period.

At present it is not clear whether the Ministry of Science and ICT (parent ministry of BAEC) or the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (parent ministry of BMD/GSB) has any definitive, time bound plan for exploration of beach sand minerals. However, the fact that the government of Bangladesh (GOB) has issued exploration licence to a foreign company indicates that GOB is interested to exploit beach mineral resources through private investment. Now that two ministries are involved in beach sand minerals, question may arise regarding the role of BAEC and BMD. BAEC can obviously have emotional attachment with the beach sand minerals with which they have been so long associated. One may argue that BAEC should still play a leading role in this affair.

It may be noted that in India beach sand minerals are under the jurisdiction of Department of Atomic Energy of India. However, the counter argument can be the situation in India is quite different. India has big ambitious plans for nuclear weapon, defence and aerospace industries for which beach sand minerals are of strategic importance. Indeed Indian Department of Atomic Energy, defence and aerospace industry have made great progress in extracting strategic metals and alloys from beach sand minerals and in using them in nuclear, defence and aircraft industries already. But Bangladesh does not and is unlikely to have any ambitious nuclear weapons/aerospace programme in the foreseeable future. For Bangladesh beach sand minerals seem to be of economic rather than strategic importance. This has been the case for other beach sand mineral producing countries of the world, including Australia and South Africa -- the largest producers. In these countries beach sand minerals are not controlled by the respective atomic energy authorities.

As for BMD, its parent organisation -- the Geological Survey of Bangladesh -- has reasonable successes in bringing mining projects into reality. BMD entered into the beach sand minerals arena recently by giving exploration licence to a relatively unknown Australian company, International Titanium Resources Pty. Ltd. Not much is known by the public about the exploration contract. Moreover, so far BMD did not make available relevant information to local entrepreneurs who may be interested to undertake exploration on their own or in joint venture with foreign companies. It is not known either how much attention has been given by BMD to environmental and radioactive disposal issues which are very relevant to beach sand mineral exploration.

The government policies regarding the exploitation of beach sand minerals have been vague, patchy. This is in spite of the fact that the beach sand minerals of Bangladesh have been proven to be good enough for commercial exploitation. Zircon and rutile can be commercialised directly and ilmenite after upgradation. It is regrettable that these valuable minerals are awaiting exploitation for so many years. In spite of the involvement of two ministries, the fate of the resources still seems to be as uncertain as ever. This situation in not acceptable and the highest level policy makers of the country have got to do, something immediately. It is high time that the government take decisive and transparent policy decisions backed by efficient and rapid action.

Dr ASMA Haseeb is Professor, Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering, BUET